Education crisis looms in Latin America following Covid

Throughout the pandemic, Diana Gómez Guerra has switched between looking after customers at her family’s store in Mexico City and trying to tutor her 10-year-old daughter.

In a small pantry at the back, stacked to the ceiling with giant bottles of Coca-Cola, her daughter Helen Michelle struggled with her homework – especially math.

“I tried to explain things in a way and she didn’t get it,” Gómez Guerra recalls of her attempts to teach decimals. “So she had to wait until Thursday to ask the teacher” – the day Helen Michelle received weekly video lessons.

The coronavirus pandemic has punished Latin America, pushing up the death toll and its economies are collapsing. The region accounts for 8% of the world’s population but about a third of global Covid-19 deaths.

Now it is causing an education crisis in a region already plagued by inequalities and long behind in academic performance.

Schools in Latin America have remained closed for much of the pandemic, forcing students to learn remotely – often through spotty mobile and internet connections. The closures have lasted longer than any other region in the world, according to Unicef, which in a June report estimated 100 million students in Latin America were affected by full or partial school closures.

Two daughters and a mother watch one of the courses broadcast on television by the Mexican government © Cristopher Rogel Blanquet / Getty Images

The impact of closing schools for such a long time is difficult to assess, but there is cause for concern. The World Bank estimates that the prolonged shutdowns could cost the region $ 1.7 billion in lost future revenues. About 1.8 million Mexicans have dropped out of school due to the challenges of the pandemic, according to state statistics service INEGI. And nongovernmental groups in Colombia are reporting an increase in criminal organizations recruiting young people who drop out of school.

The reluctance to reopen schools raises uncomfortable questions about Latin America’s priorities.

“We made an expensive choice from a future perspective,” said Carolina Campos, founder of the consultancy firm Vozes da Educação in Brazil. “We have chosen to open stores and businesses but to keep schools closed.”

Brazil has resumed classes, although restarts have varied by state and municipality. Argentina has reopened schools after middle-class professionals without childcare options strongly protested.

Mexico has kept schools closed throughout the pandemic – except for brief openings in some states, which have been truncated by deteriorating health conditions. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continued a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic, but announced that in-person classes would finally resume on August 30.

“It is not only an education problem but also a social problem,” said López Obrador. “We can’t have kids locked in or totally, completely dependent on Nintendo. It’s really toxic.

Students take lessons in a makeshift classroom in their schoolyard in Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 2020
Students attend classes in a makeshift classroom in their schoolyard in Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 2020 © Juan Mabromata / AFP / Getty Images

The reopening comes as the variant of the Delta coronavirus increases and concerns grow about its effects on unvaccinated children. López Obrador remained unfazed, telling reporters: “We have to take certain risks throughout life.” A government tweet insisted: “Worldwide, there is no evidence of a Covid-19 epidemic among minors. “

Teachers have been vaccinated, but Mexico still has not approved vaccines against children and adolescents.

A poll by El Financiero newspaper found that 56% of parents in Mexico City were against resuming in-person classes. About 70 percent of children want to go back to school, according to a survey by the Mexico City Human Rights Commission.

“If we are in poor health in terms of health, we are even worse off in terms of education,” said Marco Fernández, professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey.

López Obrador has promoted austerity throughout the pandemic, spending less than 1% of gross domestic product on Mexico’s response. This austerity included education and no subsidy for Internet access or student equipment. Teachers gave lessons over weak Internet connections – often paid for out of pocket. Television courses completed the offer.

“The rule here is: everyone does what they can with what they have,” said Alma Maldonado, education researcher at Cinvestav in Mexico.

Teachers say they were overworked and inundated with questions at all times and had to deal with disinterested parents.

Mexico’s national teachers’ union supported the return to class, although dissident unionists in several states opposed the president’s plans. Teachers protesting working conditions blocked access to López Obrador’s morning press conference on Friday in southern Chiapas, forcing him to speak to reporters from his sport utility vehicle. “I will not give in to blackmail,” the president said.

Concerns about overcrowding also surfaced; a fourth-grade teacher says she has 30 students enrolled in a classroom designed for 20 students.

A teacher holds up a whiteboard during an online class from her home in Matamoros, Mexico
A teacher holds up a whiteboard during an online class from her home in Matamoros, Mexico © Sergio Flores / AFP / Getty Images

School infrastructure is often dilapidated or non-existent; 23 percent of Mexican schools lack running water, according to the Secretariat of Public Education.

“There is no guarantee that even private schools are in the proper conditions for a full return,” said Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez, a Mexican sociologist who studies education.

The deplorable state of school infrastructure points to broader education issues. Latin American students perform poorly on the PISA exam, which assesses the learning of 15-year-olds in math, science and reading and is supervised by the OECD.

Parents, meanwhile, have exerted little pressure to reopen public and private schools, except in Argentina.

Rafael de Hoyos, economist, attributes apathy to the fact that education is not always seen as a route to social mobility in Latin America. He also noted: “The low participation of women in the labor market in Latin America – further reduced by the pandemic – has contributed to a lack of urgency for resuming in-person classes. “

“Polls before the pandemic show people value education,” said de Hoyos, who teaches at Mexico’s Autonomous Technological Institute. “But the pandemic has shown our true preference revealed. “

Gómez Guerra wants her daughter to return to class, even though she has doubts. She serves a constant stream of customers refusing to wear masks or socially distancing themselves in her store, which has made her wonder aloud, “If it’s difficult for adults to wash their hands and socially distancing oneself, what about children? “

But her daughter is tired of being locked in a two-bedroom apartment, says Gómez Guerra. She misses classes, as well as capoeira and computer classes there.

“It was a really bitter experience,” said Gómez Guerra. “Maybe we need to learn to live with this virus and teach [our children] that they must take precautions.

With reports by Michael Pooler and Carolina Pulice in São Paulo and Ignacio Portes in Buenos Aires

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